Buck hurried down the street toward Nathan's room, making cursory checks to ensure that his shirt was tucked in and his face didn't feel like it looked too awful, since he hadn't shaved. He knew Nathan would be sore he hadn't gotten more sleep, but hell, it was almost noon, he'd gotten four whole hours. He felt all right, and it wasn't like he could sleep much more anyway.

Buck noticed how quiet it was as he wound his way through Four Corner's thoroughfares. He knew he was getting some dirty looks from the few people who were out on the street. He was almost used to them. But here and there someone smiled at him too, and that felt a little better. Maybe this thing with Vin had gotten some people riled, but Buck tried to shore himself up with the thought that most people didn't seem to mind having him around. Some were even downright friendly...

Buck was passing a small notions store when he heard a voice call his name. Stopping, he turned to see the owner of the store, a slight young woman, standing in the doorway clutching her broom. Her big eyes looked scared of Buck, but he remembered that she'd always been friendly and tugged at his hat in greeting.

"Morning, Miss Walters," he said as amiably as he could. What was her first name, he thought. Emmie.

"Um - hi, Mr. Wilmington," the young woman replied, a little nervously. "I was just wondering how your friend was doing."

"JD? Oh, he's doin' much better, ma'am, thanks for asking. I was just on my way over, I'll give him your regards."

"Oh - okay, thanks." Emmie smiled, and seemed to relax a bit. "Um, I heard that you were leaving town."

Buck was suddenly confused, but blinked it away. "No, ma'am, I'm not planning on leaving. You mean on a trip?"

Emmie twisted her hands on the broom. "Um, no, it's just everybody's saying that the sheriff is going to make you guys leave, now that one of you tried to kill him. It's just that...well, I guess it's not very nice to say, but I think you guys did a better job than he's doing"

"Um..." Buck leaned back a bit, suddenly wished he'd shaved. "Well, thank you, ma'am, but you-all made Conklin sheriff. I'm sure he'll...well, he'll do his best anyways."

"I didn't make him sheriff," Emmie said, almost angrily. "I don't even like him. And I don't think one of you guys tried to kill him either."

"I appreciate that, ma'am." Buck took a step away, "Now if you'll excuse me - "

"You guys aren't really going to go, are you?"

Buck stopped. "Not planning on it, ma'am."

"That's good." Emmie smiled. And it was a nice smile. "Because there's a lot of people around here that want you to stay." Her voice dropped, and she leaned closer to Buck. "There used to be some kind of ratty people coming into town, and if they come back some of us don't think Conklin can handle them. We'd just feel better if you stayed."

Buck put his hands together, backed away with a smile. "Don't worry, ma'am. We ain't goin' nowhere."

Emmie nodded happily, and waved at Buck as he tugged at his hat again and turned back down the street.

Now that was odd. Well, maybe it wasn't. He'd been afraid of what might happen regarding their employment ever since Chris' attack had come to light; that Conklin was thinking of kicking them out didn't seem farfetched, at least not after last night, but still even he had to be aware of what would happen if he was the only law in Four Corners. But wait, it was Conklin. Maybe he wasn't.

Buck passed the saloon, peeked inside. Hm, usual traffic for the late morning hours. Buck's stomach knotted as he noticed a couple of men there that he'd seen before, roughnecks from the time before Chris came. I was afraid of this. They're coming back.

More people on the street. Buck passed close to a young boy, who looked at him and waved. Buck waved back, but noticed that the boy's mother had seen the exchange and yanked the youth out of his path, giving Buck a venomous look. Buck swallowed his anger, thought of Emmie's smile, and that helped. But not everyone was on their side.

Buck arranged his thoughts as he walked up the stairs. He hoped JD would be in better spirits, but knew that probably wouldn't be the case. Poor kid. This whole thing's been tough on everybody, but in his present condition it might kill JD. spiritually if not physically. Chris was his idol; well, hell, they all had respected him. Now that was over, and Buck tried to think of something to say to JD, some way to make him feel better.

He couldn't come up with a thing.

Nathan's door was slightly open, and Buck gently pushed on it and looked into the room. He knew Nathan would probably be there, but was surprised to see Josiah and Ezra there also, Josiah sitting quietly by JD's side, and Ezra standing in the corner, flipping his pack of cards in his fingers. JD looked like he was still asleep, still balled up in the covers, only the top half of his face visible in the entwining blankets. There was a heavy oppression in the air that set the hackles up on Buck's neck, and he hated it immediately.

Nathan got up from his chair at JD's side and approached Buck, his face angry. "What are you doin' here?" he whispered. "I thought I told you to get some sleep."

There was something unsettled in Nathan's eyes, and Buck shook his head and disregarded the question. "What happened? Is JD worse?"

Nathan paused, then turned away with a rueful eye to the bed. "No, he ain't awake yet. I hope he wakes up soon, I need to change those bandages."

Buck walked into the room, closed the door behind him. Everyone looked worried, even the usually unreadable Ezra. "Then what is it?"

Ezra left the corner, walked close to where Buck was standing and said quietly, "I talked to Vin last night, in the jail. Apparently a vote is being taken this morning that will likely end our careers here."

Buck froze for a moment, staring at Ezra. Then he put his hands on his hips and looked at the floor. "Shit," he said softly.

"I know," Nathan agreed as he retook his seat. "Stinks, don't it?"

"Miss Walters was right." Buck said to no one in particular. "They want us out."

"Not all of us, fortunately," Ezra amended, looking down at the cards sliding through his hands, "Mr. Tanner seemed to think Nathan would be allowed to stay, and Mr. Dunne. The rest of us are currently persona non grata.."

"Well, they can have my gun," Buck said stubbornly, looking around at his friends, "but I ain't leavin'. Not till JD gets out of that bed."

There was a pause, then Ezra looked up at Buck with portent in his green eyes. "It's - Mr. Tanner's opinion that it would be better for Mr. Dunne if he were removed from here as soon as possible. For his own safety."

Buck looked at Ezra for a moment, then walked over to the small bed, with its smaller occupant. He put his hands absently on the wrought iron railing, and stared at JD's sleeping form with a thoughtful look in his brown eyes.

The others watched him for a moment, then Nathan stood and joined Buck at the foot of his bed. Buck didn't look at him.

"It's not a bad idea, Buck," Nathan said in low tones. "I done all I can for him here. Maybe he should get out of here, go to some big city like San Francisco, or maybe even go back east."

Buck's eyes looked immeasurably sad. "He ain't going to get better?"

Nathan paused, sighed, scratched his head. "He don't have any infections. His collarbone'll heal all right, and the stitches look good. But I can't do anything about the other."

The other. Nathan couldn't even say it, that JD was crippled and would be for the rest of his life. They were right, of course, there was nothing for JD to stay for in Four Corners, but...

But Buck found himself shaking his head. "Comin' out west was all he ever wanted. We take that away and he is going to die." Buck said it in a decisive, firm way, matched by the combative look in his eyes when he turned to Nathan.

The healer looked at JD and replied, "I know, Buck, but he might get killed if he stays here. And maybe - maybe there's somebody out there that can help him."

"In any case," Josiah said softly from his post by JD's bed, "it appears our time here is done."

Buck looked at Josiah angrily, tried to keep his voice down, but it was difficult. "You ain't just givin' up? Weren't you the one who said we had to keep ourselves together so JD would have something to get better for?"

"You heard Nathan." Josiah stood and moved to the end of the bed, and talked lower. "We can't help JD any more here. And much as I hate to go, we always knew eventually our time here was going to run out."

Buck stood there for a moment, staring at Josiah, his mind rampaging with emotion. It couldn't end like this, it couldn't - but -

They were tired. That was it. Everyone was tired and worn out, including him. The past four days had been sheer hell on bodies and nerves, and they were simply sick of fighting it. But they had to, dammit! It couldn't be over this way.

Josiah went back and sat down by JD's side, and Nathan resumed his place in the other chair. There was an eerie familiarity about the scene, and suddenly Buck knew what it was. The day they had found JD, that afternoon, theyhad all gathered just like this, at JD's bedside, and talked about what to do. Just like this, except Vin had been there.

Now he wasn't. And it looked like the group was falling apart.

There was a knock on the door, and after giving the others a quizzical look, Buck went to answer it.

Oh, Jesus. Buck felt a surge of nausea. It was Conklin.

"Good morning, Mr. Wilmington," Conklin said a little too cheerfully, and loudly. Buck hushed him, opened the door a little wider.

"Oh, sorry," Conklin said in a quieter voice, and stepped into the room, looking around. "Good, I kind of thought you'd all be here."

Nathan stood up quickly, approached the man. "What is it, Mr. Conklin? We got to keep it quiet in here, for JD."

"Oh. Well, I'll make it brief then." Conklin waited until the men had come close enough to him, then cleared his throat and put his hand on the lapel that still proudly bore his sheriff's star. "In light of recent events, I've been asked by the town council to, uh, remove you gentlemen from your employment as the town's lawmen, effective immediately."

Ezra, Josiah, Nathan, and Buck looked at each other, their faces all wearing similar expressions of dismay. It was happening.

Conklin paused dramatically, then continued. "Now, Mr. Jackson, you're a citizen of this town, so you may of course stay, but you other gentlemen may want to consider alternative places to call home."

Nathan tilted his head. "What about JD?"

"Oh - well, Mr. Dunne is hardly a threat to anyone in his current condition. I don't think the council would have any problem with him staying."

Buck glared at him. "That's mighty charitable of you."

Conklin grinned, missing the point. "Well, you know, we appreciate you men's , uh, service, and I'm sure Judge Travis is likewise grateful, but I'm afraid recent happenings have eroded the town's faith in your capacity to render your duties effectively. So I've been given the authority to dismiss you, and I'm using it."

There was a thick silence in the room as everyone absorbed this. Then Buck folded his arms and looked at Conklin sternly.

"And what if we don't feel like goin'?" he asked archly. Nathan moved to put a warning hand on his shoulder as Conklin frowned at him. "Well, then, as sheriff of this town I can make you leave, since I have reason to believe your presence here poses a threat to the people. But you're all reasonable men, at least most of you, most of the time. If it comes to running you out with shotguns, it won't be because of anything I started."

Josiah eyed Conklin evenly. "Mr. Conklin, I don't mean to sound disrespectful, but things were pretty bad here before Judge Travis hired us. What do you plan to do if they come back?"

Conklin wrinkled up his face, waved his free arm dismissively. "Oh, I can handle that. That's why I got a deputy, you know. Plus, I'm sure those men have all moved on to other towns."

"But if they haven't?" Josiah asked again, gently.

Conklin opened his mouth, closed it, glared at Josiah as his eyes narrowed. "Yes, you'd probably like that, wouldn't you? See this town go to rack and ruin again, so you could come in and take it back over. Well, sorry to disappoint you, but it's not going to happen. I'm in charge now, and when the judge gets here tomorrow he'll thank me for exposing you for the bunch of murdering renegades you are."

Nathan scowled at the accusation. "Mr. Conklin - "

"No, that's enough." Conklin said testily, backing toward the door. "I've been polite with you people, and look what it's got me." He stabbed his finger at Ezra, then Josiah and Buck. "You and you and you - out by sundown, or I'm warning you. The town council's got shotguns too, and we know how to use 'em." With that, Conklin turned and stormed out the door, leaving it hanging open behind him.

There was a heavy silence in the room for what seemed like an eternity. Then Buck shook his head and said, "We ain't gonna stand for this, are we? Gettin' run out of town like rats by some sidewindin' coward?"

Josiah was staring at the door thoughtfully. "We can try to stay. But if he makes good on that threat, somebody might get hurt."

"Like Conklin?" Buck spat, giving Josiah a significant look.

"No, like Emmie Walters," Josiah replied. "Or someone's child. These are nervous people, Buck. Their aim ain't too straight. And we'll get blamed for that too."

Buck looked around, almost wildly. "So that's it? We're just gonna let Conklin break us up?"

"He's got the authority," Josiah said regretfully as he walked back to the window. "It ain't what any of us wants, but I don't see as we have much of a choice."

Nobody moved for a few moments. Finally Buck walked quietly to the chair by JD's bed, sat down in it, and leaned far forward with his chin resting on his fisted hands. He stared at JD's sleeping face, and said nothing.

After a few moments Buck heard Nathan sigh, heard weary footsteps as he moved to the other chair and sat down. He sighed, but didn't say anything else.

Buck looked up to see Josiah come to stand behind Nathan and put a hand on the healer's shoulder. Nathan didn't look up.

Ezra tucked his cards into his jacket, walked quietly to the foot of the bed. When he finally spoke, it was in the softest of voices. "Mr. Wilmington?"

Buck looked over, his eyes focusing after a moment.

"Before I leave..." Ezra ran his hands along the bedrail, not looking at Buck as he spoke, "There is a sum of money I have been appropriating for the purchase of my saloon. I'd like to offer it to finance you and Mr. Dunne's journey. I think - I think San Francisco would be best for him."

Buck sat back, opened his mouth.

Ezra held up his hand, quickly. "I'll take no argument on this, Mr. Wilmington. Mr. Dunne needs the best accommodations possible and sleeper cars are not inexpensive."

Buck peered at Ezra, openly curious.

Ezra's hands went back to the railing, his face changing as he stared at the broken youth sleeping before them. "I see no reason for Mr. Dunne to suffer second-class treatment simply because this thing has...has ended badly for us. I'll leave, and gladly. It's long been time for me to take a change of air, but he...I fear that Mr. Dunne may need to be eased into this new world he will take him some time to adjust..."

Ezra faltered for a moment, stopped, gazed down at his hands. He grasped the railing until his knuckles turned white, and when he looked back up there was an anger in his eyes so intense Buck felt as if he'd been burned by them.

"Mr. Jackson, " Ezra said in a suddenly tight, strained voice, looking at Nathan. "When Mr. Larabee returns, please tell him for me that I hope he lives the rest of his life in contemplation of what he has destroyed here. Because I for one will never forgive him for it."

Josiah and Nathan both looked at Ezra, mild surprise in their faces. Ezra glanced at them, looked away and cleared his throat as he backed toward the door.

"My offer stands, Mr. Wilmington. I hope you accept it, " he said, clearing his throat. "Now if you gentlemen will excuse me, I believe I'd best start packing."

Then Ezra hurried out the door, as fast as he could.

+ + + + + + +

Thick clouds scuttled gradually over the sun, blocking the midday light as Chris carefully led his horse along the stony path to the burned-out ranch.

It had been a long journey, but today it felt like it had taken centuries. Chris barely noticed the familiar landmarks as he passed them, his mind instead on other places, other times. And they all hurt.

So close. He had been so close to taking Darcy's advice, to going back to Four Corners and facing the consequences of that awful night. It had scared him; scared him as few things in his life had scared Chris, especially since the fire, but there had been a short time there when it seemed like it would be worth it, because maybe it would work. Maybe he could get back a little of their respect. Maybe if he showed them how sorry he was, they wouldn't hate him so much. And then, just maybe, things would be all right.

But now Chris knew that wasn't possible. No, not even in Darcy Thomas' wildest flights of optimism could he pull a happy ending out of the words that sheriff was saying. Chris knew when he'd heard those words that he had to leave; had to get out before Darcy woke up, and attempted to stop him.

Because Chris was sure he would have killed him, if he tried.

Crippled...crippled...the word sounded over and over in Chris' head, rang like a demonic echo through his heart. Oh, shit, JD. Chris felt that horrible helpless ache course through him. I'm so sorry. Until last night I didn't know. Josiah said you were hurt, probably pretty bad, but I crippled you. I turned you into a damn invalid, and you were only trying to make sure I wasn't going to kill myself getting home. You probably hate me, but I hate myself worse. I thought I could make it up to you somehow, before, but how do you make up for taking somebody's life away from them? I gave Darcy my wedding ring, it's the only thing of value I have. It won't make you walk again, but maybe he can get enough money from it to get you out to the sea, or somewhere else, so you can feel better. It's all I have. I know it's not enough.

Chris came to a turn in the road. Pretty close to the ranch now. He felt a tightening in his chest, recalled the sheriff's words that Four Corners had turned on the others. God, as if JD's injuries weren't problems enough for them. What were they doing now? Had Ezra left, as he always seemed to be ready to do, off to New Orleans or St. Louis maybe, to join his mother? Would Josiah leave too, or fight to stay and finish the church? And Buck - Buck, whose hating eyes Chris saw everywhere, what would he do? He wouldn't leave JD. Thank God, at least Chris knew that the loyalty that up until now had been for Chris, Buck would transplant to JD, and stay with the boy for the rest of his life. Buck's a good friend, Chris told JD in his mind. Don't abuse his friendship, like I did.

But he'd abused all their friendships. Buck's, JD's, even Ezra, who'd always held him at arm's length. Josiah, Nathan. And of course, Vin - quiet, unassuming Vin, who gave Chris his unflinching loyalty and who was probably at this moment trying to keep things from falling apart. But Chris shook his head, it was no use. Thanks to him, they were probably all being treated like child murderers, and Chris hoped for all their sakes that they got out of Four Corners before something really terrible happened. He already had the burden of JD's injuries on his soul. He didn't want to add any of their deaths to it as well.

Closer still, and the clouds were getting thicker. Chris' mind turned to tomorrow - tomorrow, the day Judge Travis was supposed to arrive to tend to his case, and sentence him. What would the judge do, when he got there and Chris didn't show up? Perhaps Darcy would be there by then, and would explain, but Chris wasn't sure the Irishman would see his side of it enough to want to uphold his decision. He was sure he didn't - Darcy probably hated him now too, thought him a coward and a fugitive, but Darcy didn't know. How could anyone know who didn't know Chris' men, the depth of shame and injustice they were undergoing at that moment? The judge knew them, a little; maybe he would understand that Chris couldn't go back, that there was nothing he could accomplish by going back to town long enough to get lynched, or rot in a cell. The situation would be the same, regardless of whether he went back or not. JD would still be crippled. His men would still be scattered. His sin would stay the same.

Then why run? A voice that sounded like Buck's asked as Chris rounded the final bend toward the only home he'd ever loved. Why not go back, if it really doesn't make a difference?

Chris bit his lip, fought back tears as four days of exhaustion and tight nerves brought long-buried emotions to the surface. Because I just can't face it. I admitted it before, I 'm a coward, and it's true, but it's much more true now. Darcy thought my men would forgive me, but he didn't know how bad it was. They could have forgiven me for hurting JD, maybe, but not for crippling him. They could have forgiven me for angering the town, but not for forcing them to leave it. No matter what I do, I can't make it right, except by one way.

I've got to disappear. Forever.

They'll still be mad. They'll still curse my name and hate me, but at least my money will help JD, and I won't be around to cause any more pain. I'm tired of pain...

The ranch came into view, and Chris sighed out loud at the sight of it. He'd shared the low, one-story structure with his wife Sarah and their son Adam for eight years, until it had been burned to the ground. There it stood, charred timbers still jutting upward from its stone foundation. A scrubby yard, an abandoned corral with a windmill still turning lazily in the mild breeze, forgotten. And a short distance from the house, in a little square of wrought-iron fencing, two white wooden crosses, names written lovingly on them for all eternity: Sarah and Adam.

Chris slowed the horse down, stopped and dismounted. He ached, ached and hurt, and now it escalated until it consumed him as he staggered toward those two tiny markers. He grabbed the iron, felt it hard and cold under his hands. Here I am, Sarah. I'm home, and this time I'm not leaving again. Not until you come and get me.

The wind rustled in the trees, and Chris put his head down, let the tears run down his cheeks. Christ, Sarah, maybe you won't come. Likely you're ashamed of me too, and you got the right, but I'm tired of fighting these demons in me. They seem pretty determined to win. But I'm not going to let them take anybody else with them, just me. Just me.

The clouds thickened more, it began to smell like rain. Well, that's appropriate. Chris turned around and walked toward his horse. Yes, it seemed right, now that Chris had come to the end of his trail and there was nothing left, that it should rain and be dark. It was comforting somehow, to know that the sun would not shine on his face anymore while he was alive. Chris looked around the small ranch. This is the last place I'll see. It was the happiest time of my life, and it's the first place they'll look when they realize I'm not coming back. I'll make it easy on them. And me.

He put his hands on his saddlebag, reached into it.

This is it. The end of everything, but I've got one comfort left.

Pulled out a bottle of whiskey.

Chris paused, stared at the bottle uncertainly. He'd picked it up at a roadside cantina, but now as he looked at it he felt his stomach lurch. He shouldn't get drunk; getting drunk had caused his problems, had broken up his men, had paralyzed JD. It would take away his reason, his sanity, and it had felt good to have them, the last four days. He had been thinking, and talking to Darcy, and facing things, all without crawling to the bottle. For him, it had been nothing short of a miracle.

But now he wanted to escape. He needed to escape.

Chris looked around. He was in the middle of nowhere, only ghosts and memories lived here. He'd been living with those too, the last four days; throwing JD into a brick wall, smashing his fist into JD's face, lurching out of the alley and leaving JD bleeding in the dirt. Waking up to Buck's burning eyes, then Josiah's gentle but incriminating words, get out of here before you kill someone...

Oh, God. Chris suddenly yearned for the blissful forgetfulness in that green bottle. To forget, to just drink and drink until it didn't hurt anymore, and then lay down and go to sleep. God, it would feel so good...

But he couldn't bring himself to uncork the bottle. Not yet.

A few drops of rain fell. Chris turned around, looked at the graves, suddenly thought, Josiah was right, after all. He said I had to go to the tombs and the mountains. Well, I guess the tombs won. Sorry, Josiah. Wasn't what you had in mind, but I don't see that I have a choice. Please don't be gone when Darcy gets there. Make sure JD gets taken care of. And tell Mary...tell everyone...

I'm sorry.

With the heaviest heart he'd ever known, Chris sat down on the ruined front steps of his ranch, and stared at the bottle in front of him with tired, frightened eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Mary paused in her writing and set her pen down with a satisfied smile. There. That should do it.

She'd been very careful to keep any sarcasm or innuendo out of her writing, but she had to admit in this particular case that had been very hard to do. But she thought - maybe - that she'd been able to write an article about Vin's arrest without the slightest hint that this was the fraud she knew it was. And she knew she would be proven right.

LOCAL PEACEKEEPER JAILED, the headline said, SHERIFF WOUNDED. And then facts beneath it, just facts. Mary smiled to herself, but then they were fairly strange facts, like the witness had a strangely selective memory. And selective vision. And, she sensed from his attitude, a lot to hide.

Mary took a deep breath, stretched her tired muscles. Things were beginning to look up. Orin would be here before long, and certainly when presented with the facts he would have no choice but to let Vin go, and accept Conklin's apology for treating the men so shabbily. The 'witness' may have fooled Gerald Townsend, but just let Orin fix those piercing black eyes on him and we'll see how much of his story he even remembers! Yes, Vin would be free by tomorrow.

And Chris would come back...Mary felt a little uncertain about that. His actions still confused her, and she wasn't sure she'd ever feel completely safe around him again, after...but she knew he'd come back, it was the right thing to do, and Chris always did the right thing, no matter how he felt about it personally. She wondered how the others would treat him, and hoped they wouldn't shut him out completely. Vin wouldn't. And JD...

I should go see JD. I haven't visited him in a while. She stood to go get her shawl and take a walk when the door opened, and Conklin walked in, scowling, his arm in a sling.

Mary swallowed, remembering Gloria's words of the previous evening. Stand firm. You have the facts. Smiling, she said, "Good morning, Mr. Conklin."

"Morning, Mary." Conklin tipped his hat. "Heard from the judge?"

Mary shook her head. "He should be here by tomorrow morning, though. Is there a problem?"

"Problem? No, just the opposite. I finally got the council's approval to fire those hired guns, and I wanted you to put an article about it in your newspaper."

Mary didn't hear anything Conklin said after 'hired guns'. She tried not to show the dismay she felt. "You - fired them? Why?"

"Why?!" Conklin yapped, lifting his bandaged arm. "Look at this! Shot at point blank range by that tracker fellow! The whole town's up in arms about it, Mary, they practically begged me to get them out of town."

Mary doubted that, but didn't say so.

"Say, Gerald said you were in the jail this morning," Conklin said suspiciously. "You want to talk to me about something?"

Mary moved her notebook out of Conklin's reach. "I was looking for some facts concerning Mr. Tanner's arrest. You might want to look at his case closer, the witness I saw didn't seem to have a very credible story."

"Huh!" Conklin snorted. "You would say that. I have looked over Mr. Durning's testimony, and it looks pretty air-tight to me. That tracker's going to be in jail for a long, long time."

"You think so?" Mary crossed her arms. "The judge might not agree with you, I'm afraid."

"Well, I'm not so concerned about the judge's opinion anymore," Conklin said confidently, putting his hands on his lapels, "In fact, the reason I asked about him was because I wired him this morning and left a message at the Ridge City stop to tell him not to bother to come."

Mary was thunderstruck. "What?!"

Conklin shrugged. "Well, there isn't any need anymore, is there? Town's quiet, we got a sheriff, and if Larabee comes back I'm more than prepared to sentence him. Seems to me having the judge come here is just a waste of time."

"Oh, really?" Mary openly glared at Conklin; suddenly she didn't care anymore.

"Really," Conklin rejoined, jutting his chin out. "And before you get any ideas, the telegraph operator agrees with me. Now if you'll excuse me, I have town business to attend to."

He turned on his heel and walked out, closed the door behind him.

For a moment Mary just stood there. She felt like screaming. She felt like tearing her hair out. But neither of those things were productive. Her mind raced around, the men were leaving, the only law was leaving, and what if the outlaws were coming back? And Orin was being told to not bother coming! She had to do something, anything, but what?

Go to them. Beg them to ignore Conklin, and stay. It was her only chance.

Setting the notebook down carefully on the desk, Mary went to get her shawl, and prayed that she wasn't too late.

+ + + + + + +

The little roadside cantina glowed in the midday sun. The proprietor, an old man whose only ambition in life had been to have a table and chairs set out for passerby to enjoy his whiskey at a nickel a head, was dusting off his only table with an old rag when he heard the approach of a horse and rider and looked up.

It was a large, dark horse with a worried-looking man on it, a man who looked at him and in an Irish accent asked, "Pardon me, sir, but I'm lookin' for a friend of mine, a blond fellow dressed in black. Did he ride through here?"

"Huh." The old man leaned back with a smile. "Yep, sure did, just after the sun come up. You want some whiskey?"

"Uh, no thanks," the Irishman responded, prepared to spur forward.

"You sure? It was good enough for your friend."

The Irishman stopped, looked at the old man with wide eyes. "He bought some?"

The old man grinned proudly. "Yep, two bottles. Homemade, best stuff in - "

"Mary, mother of God." the Irishman muttered, and set his horse off again, disappearing into the brush at a gallop.

The old man looked after him for a moment, then spat on his rag. "Damn foreigners," he muttered, and went back to his work.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan's room was quiet. Outside, Buck could hear the birds singing, the rattle of horses and wagons, the bustle of daily activity that after today would live only in his memory. They blended with the dim light in the still room, hung over Buck's head as he studied JD's sleeping face, and waited for him to wake up.

Maybe you're better off sleeping. kid. Buck looked at that bruised face huddled beneath the blankets, the long-lashed eyes closed tightly as JD lay bundled on his right side. The bruises were finally starting to heal; the big one on JD's face was just losing its dark look, fading a bit to a sort of maroon color, and the swelling was gone. The cuts and other marks were fading a bit too, and if Buck squinted it almost looked like JD wasn't really that badly injured at all. Almost.

Yeah, keep dreamin', JD. Maybe where you are right now, none of this happened. Maybe you're ridin' over to Ridge City with Chris and Vin, or dancin' with that working girl you had your eye on. Or maybe you're doing things that aren't even possible. Hope they're happy dreams, kid. Cause right now, real life stinks.

As if he'd heard Buck's ruminations, JD stirred in the blankets, let out a small muffled groan and opened his eyes. He squinted at Buck for a moment, as if trying to place him, then lazily rolled over onto his back.

"Buck," JD said sleepily, looking around the room with bleary eyes. "Where's Nathan?"

"He's gone to get some more supplies." Buck tried to smile as JD rubbed his eyes and yawned. "How you feelin', kid?"

JD shrugged listlessly with his one good shoulder. "Okay. I guess."

"Well, that's good," Buck said, trying to sound optimistic. "You hungry?"

JD appeared to think about it. "No."

Buck tilted his head. "You sure? Nathan said you ain't had nothing to eat since last night. Some grits, maybe? Or how about some of those pan-fried potatoes you're always eatin' the restaurant out of?"

JD scratched his head. "No, that's okay." He stretched, grimacing as he moved his sore muscles, then curled back over on his right side and closed his eyes again.

He can't still be tired. Buck leaned close to JD and said softly, "Um, son? I know you're beat, but Nathan's going to be wantin' to change those bandages when he gets back, so you might as well stay up."

"Go away, Buck." JD replied, his voice muffled by the blankets snugged around his chin.

Buck cleared his throat, decided to try again. "Now son, I'd rather argue with you than Nathan. None of us have gotten much sleep 'cept you, and the man is a grizzly bear about cleanliness, so you might as well give it up."

JD groaned, opened his eyes again and once more turned himself onto his back. He stared at the wooden beams in Nathan's ceiling and asked in a tired voice, "Is Chris back?"

Buck crossed his legs and shook his head. "Nope. Should be back tomorrow."

JD blinked slowly at the ceiling, didn't look at Buck. After a moment he said, "Oh," in a very quiet voice.

Buck looked at his young friend closely. There was a drawn look to JD's face that worried Buck, worried him because he'd seen that look before. On Chris' face, right after he buried his family. Leaning a little closer, Buck cleared his throat and asked, "You okay, JD?"

JD still didn't look at him, but gave a little snort and said, "That's a stupid question." He worked his free hand out from the blankets, and grabbing the top of the quilt pushed it down and away from his body.

"Uh - " Buck sat up, watched at JD hiked himself up in the bed a little. "What're you doin' there, JD?"

"I'm gonna try to walk again," JD said in a calm, explanatory way, and pulled himself into a sitting position.

Buck got up, walked around the bed as JD swung his legs over the side. "Now, you sure that's a good idea? You just woke up, is all I'm sayin', and you got some busted ribs there..."

"I know." JD said simply, looking at the floor like it was the Pacific ocean. His hazel eyes scanned it for a moment, then, sticking his tongue out in concentration, he cautiously put both feet on the warm wooden flooring, and slowly stood up.

"Careful now," Buck said as JD wobbled on his feet. He felt his own heart beating a little faster as JD took his hands from the edge of the bed, and stood motionless on the smooth floor. He wobbled a little, and grabbed the iron railing of the headboard for support. But he was standing.

JD smiled a little bit, then began to tilt over. More.

Buck put his hands out, alarmed.

"No help," JD said firmly, waving Buck away.

Buck pulled back, understood. But he had only at that moment realized that he hadn't been breathing.

"I'm gonna do this," JD said in a shaky, but determined voice. He stood there, just stood there in his bloodstained underdrawers for what seemed to Buck like an eternity. The birds sang outside, a wagon rolled by, and somewhere Buck heard a couple of people arguing. And JD stood in the dim sunlight of that small room that had been his universe for the past four days, and tried to remember how to walk.

A minute passed. Another one. Buck noticed JD starting to shake a little bit and thought, he's not up to this. Clearing his throat, he said softly, "Um, son - "

"Shut up, Buck," JD hissed, staring at the floor with huge eyes, his black hair hanging in his bruised face. "Just shut up and let me do this."

Buck nodded, stood back again, but kept his hands free.

"I can do this." JD repeated, shaking his head in confusion. "I know how to walk, I've been doing it since I was a baby. I can ride too...oh, this is so stupid. This is just - "

He put one leg out, let go of the headboard, lost his balance and fell.

Buck was lightning fast, grabbing JD as the youth pitched forward toward the hard floor. JD gasped out as Buck's arm wrapped around his middle, then growled in frustration.

"Damn it!" JD cried, pounding his fist into Buck's back as the gunslinger gently lowered him to the floor. He repeated the phrase and hit Buck again, his voice rising higher each time and choking with tears. "Damn it! Damn it! Damn it - "

Buck settled JD on the floor, smoothly eased the youth back against the side of the bed, and let go of him. He leaned back, his face taut with concern.

JD grunted in frustration, grabbing his hair with his good hand and yanking it angrily. "God damn it," he muttered in aggravation. "I still can't walk."

Buck put a hand to his moustache, brought it back down again. "You hurt anything in there?"

"No," JD said in a tone that reeked with disgust, wiped at one eye with the heel of his hand.

Buck nodded, a little relieved. He eyed JD carefully, saw that the redness in his face was toning down a bit, his breathing was easing some. But Buck was still apprehensive.

JD looked at the floor, ran one hand through his hair, past the stitches. After a minute he looked up and said, "Buck?"

"Yeah?" Buck answered softly.

"'s bad, isn't it?"

Buck stared at JD for a moment. Make a joke, say something lighthearted. But nothing came. Nothing.

JD's eyes grew wider, vast oceans of despair. "I mean...I'm not going to walk again. Am I?"

Oh, Jesus. Say something. He cleared his throat. "Well, I..."

"Say it." JD demanded, his voice cracking. "This is it for me. It is, isn't it?"

Buck's mind raced, darted about searching for some glimmer of hope to offer, but couldn't find any.

"Oh, God," JD said in a choked whisper, looking down and once again grabbing a handful of hair in his good hand. He shut his eyes tightly. Buck knew he was fighting not to cry. And never felt more awful in his whole life.

No, dammit, there's got to be something you can do. Leaning forward a bit, Buck put a hand on JD's arm. The boy didn't react, but Buck spoke as if they were looking right at each other.

"Now, son," he said softly. "I know you're scared, and probably you don't want to listen to ol' Buck yappin' away, but I just want to let you know that...well, that you got friends who ain't gonna let you go through whatever you got to go through alone."

JD's breathing became deeper as the struggle continued.

Undaunted, Buck pressed on. "Now it's true, you got a mountain to climb. But if anybody can make it over that mountain, it's you. You got more gumption and guts than the rest of us put together, and that's a fact."

"I can't walk, Buck," JD said miserably, still not looking at his friend. "What am I gonna do? Buck - " JD lifted his head up, looked at Buck with eyes that were full of fear and dread. In a tremulous whisper he asked, "What am I gonna do?"

Buck tightened his grip on JD's arm a little, so he could be sure the boy felt it, and gave him as reassuring a smile as he knew how. "You're gonna come with me. To San Francisco."

JD blinked in surprise, shook his head a little as if clearing it. Sniffing, he said, "S-San Francisco?"

Buck nodded, said softly, "Time for me to be movin' on, son. And there's people that might be able to help you there."

JD stared at Buck, overwhelmed. He coughed a little. "You mean help me walk?"

"Maybe," Buck said, feeling a little guilty that he was probably lying, but it was worth it if it cheered JD up, even a little. "It's worth a try, ain't it? And besides, I bet you ain't never seen the coast."

JD looked down again, shrugged. "I guess." He stared at his hand for a moment, then quickly looked back up. "But what about the rest of the guys? And the town? Won't the judge be mad we left?"

Buck cleared his throat. "Well, now that Conklin's the sheriff he sorta told us we ain't needed no more. And that's fine, that's fine with me, 'bout had my fill of this place anyhow."

JD's eyes were wide again. "Gosh, Buck. He can't do that, can he? I thought only the judge could let us go."

Buck shrugged. "Conklin's in charge now, he can do pretty much what he wants."

JD's gaze went to the floor for a moment, came back to Buck. "What are the others doing?"

Buck answered honestly. "I don't know, we ain't talked about it yet. I'm sure they'll all be by before we go." He tried to smile and tapped JD's arm as he said, "Hey, maybe we can talk 'em into coming with us."

JD bit his lip, looked at his hand. "Chris?"

Buck felt the familiar surge of anger, tried not to let it show in his voice. "He'll come back, if he knows what's good for him. Judge'll likely sentence him. He'll pay for what he done to you."

There was a long pause then, and Buck saw JD's face soften into a mask of sadness as he stared at the floor, not moving. A few minutes ticked by, and Buck watched JD thinking, his black hair dangling in his eyes, his quiet breathing the only sound in the small room.

Then JD lifted his head and asked in a small, bewildered voice, "Buck?"

Buck leaned forward. "Yeah, kid?" "We're never gonna ride together again, are we?"

Buck's heart ached at the simple tragedy in that whispered question. JD looked at him, and Buck flinched at what he saw in those hazel depths; JD's soul, that sweet, simple soul of nineteen that only wanted to ride with his friends and be part of a great adventure. That soul was dying now, a painful too-soon death, and Buck could see it fading in JD's eyes until he couldn't stand it anymore and looked away. When he looked back a moment later, JD was looking at the floor morosely, and he felt a stab of guilt.

"We'll ride again, kid," Buck said quietly, patting JD's arm. "You and me. And the others. Just as soon as we get back, we'll look 'em up and it'll be just like it used to be. You'll see."

JD blinked a few times, and Buck thought he saw a shadow of a smile on JD's lips as he kept his eyes on the floor. "Buck?"

Buck tilted his head. "Yeah?"

JD looked up at him, and Buck saw in his young, beaten face the struggling essence of a little boy trying very hard to be brave as he gave Buck a faltering half-smile. "You're still full of crap."

Buck tried to smile back, but he knew it was a feeble effort; he only hoped JD didn't pick up on just how hopeless he felt as he looked at that bruised face with its healing scars and fading hope. San Francisco. It's all we got now. With a sigh Buck shrugged and said simply, "I know, JD. I know."

And moved to help JD back into the bed.

+ + + + + + +

It was starting to get warm in the little jail as Conklin sat at the sheriff's desk and went over the paperwork that Gerald had tried to fill out regarding his attack. He shook his head in disgust, and considered having Gerald replaced. The man meant well, but...well, he just couldn't write worth a damn.

Conklin glanced up at Vin, saw the former bounty hunter was sitting on his cot, just staring ahead. Gives me the creeps. Vin was a mystery, and Conklin didn't like mysteries. He liked things in black and white, easy to read and understand. But this Tanner fellow - hell, all of those hired guns Travis had gotten - they were all not easy to understand, and that vexed Conklin. He'd always been suspicious of them. Well, he chuckled to himself, at least he'd been right. And the proof was right in front of him. Easy to read.

The door opened, and Conklin looked up to see a man he recognized as Matthew Dwight, one of the town's coopers. He removed his battered hat upon entering and said, "Mr. Conklin?"

Conklin smiled politely. "Yes?"

Dwight stepped up to the desk. "I've heard that you're asking the hired guns to leave by sundown tonight. Is that true?"

Conklin frowned. "Yes, it is. They're dangerous, as you can see by my - "

Dwight shook his head and stepped closer to the desk, his eyes serious. "Mr. Conklin, I'm here to tell you that a lot of people in town think that would be a mistake."

Conklin leaned back, folded his hands. "Oh?"

Dwight nodded. "This town was pretty bad off before they showed up, and there's people that are awfully nervous about what could happen if they go, including me."

"Well, you don't have to worry about that," Conklin said with a dismissive wave. "Me and my staff can handle anything that happens."

Dwight leaned his head closer. "Mr. Conklin, have you been to the saloon? There's some awfully dangerous-looking folks in there. A few I've seen before, back before Judge Travis hired those men."

Conklin sputtered, "Well...well, they're not - "

"Now I've heard talk," Dwight said, leaning back, "that a lot of folks don't agree with you turning those men out, and if you try it they might try and stop you. Now I'm a peaceful man, and I don't want trouble in this town. We've worked too hard to get it where it is. So I thought I'd come over here and let you know what our concerns are."

Conklin blinked at Dwight. "What do you mean, try and stop me?"

Dwight looked Conklin in the eye and replied, "I don't know. But I think you ought to consider letting the hired guns stay. Between everything that's happened and those outlaws in the saloon, I figure we got enough problems."

Conklin nodded vaguely. "I see. Well, thank you, Mr. Dwight, I'll...take your suggestion under advisement."

"I know you don't think too highly of these men," Dwight mentioned again, backing toward the door. "but they done a lot of good for the town, and a lot of people don't want to see them go. And they're kinda nervous about what might happen, and I thought you ought to know, there might be trouble."

Conklin fiddled with the papers on his desk, didn't look at Dwight again even when he opened the door, left, and closed it again.

"Trouble," Conklin muttered to himself, putting his eyes back to Gerald's report. "I'll give them trouble...trying to tell me what to do..." He glanced at Vin again, noticed the tracker was staring past him, out the window. Conklin tried to follow his gaze, noticed three ragged-looking men loitering across the street, picking their teeth and laughing raucously about something.

Outlaws. Conklin felt a twinge of fear. Well...they're not doing anything. Everyone's overreacting. He nodded reassuringly to himself, and glanced back at Vin. The former bounty hunter's expression had changed from one of general unease to...what was it? Recognition? Yes, recognition. And fear. And that was very easy to read.


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